In some churches, if our public worship and prayers echoed what we find in the Psalms we might find ourselves called before the church board for correction. Unlike the stoic legalist or safe churchman, the psalmist expressed the full range of emotions in worship. He felt no need to pretend that he had it all together. He did not limit himself to safe clichés about God.
Yet God’s people’s deeply cherish the Psalms because they openly express many of the emotions we feel. Sometimes the psalmist expressed deep anxiety and fear; other times he was plagued with a sense of despondency and discouragement. He vented anger over injustices and admitted a loss of perspective when he envied the prosperity of the ungodly.
The psalmist reminds us that the language of lament is permitted in worship. Christopher J. H. Wright suggests,
It is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain in protest to God—without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill out our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes. (The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith)
The Psalmist’s Full Range of Emotions
Although the psalmist pondered dark questions out loud—even expressing feelings of helplessness and despair—more often, he overflowed with joy and praise to the God who is his “mighty rock and refuge” (Psalm 62:7). His astonishment at the compassion and unfailing love of God resounds throughout the psalms as one amazed that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve” (Psalm 103:10).
The psalmist worked through all of these emotions and frustrations in worship and prayer. He did not allow wrong responses to God win ultimate control over his heart, but readily admitted deep struggles with difficult realities common to mankind.
Whatever his frame of mind or condition of heart, he openly expressed his thoughts and feelings to the God he loved and longed to know. He worked things out in God’s presence. Isn’t this part of what prayer involves? Can you identify with what it means to wrestle in prayer? (cf. Colossians 4:12).
The psalmist also engaged in what some call “self-talk.” He writes letters of protest to himself. Sometimes he pressed his soul with questions: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Then he launched pointed exhortations to himself: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6). “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” (Psalm 62:5).
The psalmist also paused—in the midst of his prayerful struggles—to offer a lesson or word of challenge to God’s people:
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:8-12)
If David applied for a staff position in our churches and gave us his “diary of worship” to better understand his life, would we hesitate to give him serious consideration? I am sure we would want clarification on his imprecatory psalms as well as many other parts. Is it possible that we have a lot to learn in our churches from this man after God’s own heart? Do we sanitize our worship in a way that would never allow someone to express the range of emotions found in the Psalms?